Today (October 17) in London History – the London Beer Flood

October 17, 1814 – the day of the great London beer flood. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

If a year’s worth of daily London history was a deck of cards – 365 cards plus a Joker – February 29th wouldn’t be the joker. The Joker would be today, October 17th. And make no mistake, it’s a seriously malevolent Joker.

Another way of putting that, this one’s the most bizarre of all 366 of these Today in London History episodes. 

It’d be laughable if it weren’t so tragic. You couldn’t make it up.

Let’s sneak up on it. But steady as she goes. Carefully, carefully. We don’t want to be in its line of fire.

We can pinpoint the location. For starters go to Tottenham Court Road Tube Station. Now look over the way. Kitty corner, to use the American expression. You can’t miss it. The Dominion Theatre. The apple that you’re about to bite into – the apple of the tree of London knowledge – well, no more Eden for you at the Dominion Theatre. You’ll never go to a show in there again without thinking, “if I were sitting here on October 17th, 1814 I would have drowned.

Drowned in beer.”

This was where the dam burst. This was the site of the London Beer Flood. 

This was the Horseshoe Brewery. The Horseshoe operation was part of the Meux and Co. Brewery empire. At the time – the early 19th century – the Meux Brewery was, along with Whitbread, one of the two largest brewery operations in London. 

And the Meux family – generations of them – prospered mightily.

The Meux family was descended from an old landed family from the Isle of Wight. Back in the early 18th century one of them, Thomas Meux, had come to London, established himself as a merchant. Thomas Meux’s grandson, Richard, was the first member of the family to dip his toes into the swirling vat of London brewing. When he was all of 23 years old – this was in 1757 – he acquired a rundown brewery in the Long Acre district, not far from where the tragic accident would occur 57 years later. 

And if you’re looking for first causes you probably could track back all the way to Richard, that first Meux to get into the brewing business.

Which is by way of saying, Richard Meux had a good eye for publicity. You could say he had American, had Texan instincts: big is better. 

He got a lot of publicity for his brewery by erecting larger and larger vats in which to mature their company’s product: porter.

In 1790 – the disaster is not so many years up ahead now – in 1790 Meux constructed a vat that was sixty feet across and over 20 feet high. When it was completed 200 people dined inside it and another 200 stood in the background to join in the toast to the main man.

And he just kept upsizing. Five years later he had one constructed that cost £10,000 (what it would have cost you to build a grand country house). That behemoth was the largest vat in London. It held 20,000 imperial barrels of porter.  

It was Richard’s son, Sir Henry Meux, who acquired, in 1809, the Horseshoe Brewery in Tottenham Court Road. 

Sir Henry had his father’s big is better instincts. He constructed a vat that was 22 feet high and was strengthened with 81 metric tons of iron hoops. It held 18,000 imperial barrels of porter. Porter – the beer that was first brewed in London – was the most popular alcoholic drink in the capital. The Meux brewing output was 100 per cent Porter. They didn’t brew anything. By the time of the mishap they were brewing lakes of the stuff – over 100,000 imperial barrels a year. For the best quality Porter you let it mature for up to a year in those huge vessels. That was standard practice.

And so we come to 4.30 pm on October 17th, 1814. A clerk notices that one of the 700-pound iron bands around a vat has slipped. The vat is holding thousands of gallons of ten-month-old porter – 33 tons worth. The clerk tells his supervisor about the slipped band. The supervisor is unconcerned. That’s a regular occurrence. The supervisor should have been concerned. An hour later the weakened vessel bursts under the pressure of thousands of barrels of porter. The force of the blast impacts neighbouring vessels and they add their contents to the flood. The dam has burst. Several hundred thousand imperial gallons are released. The tidal wave of porter blows out the rear wall of the brewery. A rear wall that is 25 feet high and two and a half bricks thick. Some of those bricks are cannonaded high up into the sky and rain down on the roofs of houses in nearby Great Russell Street.

The torrent of porter surging through the blown-out back wall is fifteen feet high. It tears into the neighbourhood like a tidal wave, which is what it is. Walls are swept away, basements flooded, tenements collapsed. Two slum houses adjoining the brewery are completely demolished. Others are badly damaged. That’s the property cost. The human cost: eight people lose their lives. Either by drowning, injury, poisoning by the porter fumes, or drunkenness.

Let’s remember those eight poor Londoners – literally and figuratively poor – remember them on the “we die three times” principle – “we die when we die, we die when we’re buried, we die the last time our name is spoken” – let’s not forget Elizabeth, Eleanor, Mary, Thomas, Hannah, Sarah, Ann, and Catherine on this day.

Elizabeth Smith was the 27-year-old wife of a bricklayer. Hers was the first body found. She was found about midnight in a ruined first-floor room of one of the houses that was destroyed. Elizabeth’s was the first of five bodies they found there. 

Elizabeth and the others had come as friends and neighbours to a wake an Irish family was holding for their two-year-old boy. The other victims found there included Anne Saville. Anne, the mother of the dead boy, was the principal mourner at the wake. Bears repeating – even though it compounds the macabre – the other mourners had joined Anne in her hour of need. Now dead themselves, they were found under the debris of the ruined house where the wake had been taking place. They were Mary Mulvey and her three-year-old son Thomas and Catherine Butler, a 65-year-old widow. 

The three other victims were tragically young, in two instances unbearably young. Two of them were tiny tots. Sarah Bates was three years old. Hannah Bonfield was four years old. Eleanor Cooper was a teenager – a 14-year-old servant of the publican of the Tavistock Arms in Great Russell Street. Eleanor was the first victim. When the brewery wall collapsed it fell on Eleanor. She was washing pots in the pub’s yard. She suffocated. 

All of the victims were effectively residents of the St Giles’ neighbourhood. I did a podcast about St Giles, the neighbourhood, a few days ago. That was a piece about the Seven Dials. St. Giles was, in 1814, what Whitechapel – Jack the Ripper’s slashing grounds – was in 1888 – the worst slum in London. 

Three final points. 

One, Describing the aftermath, a newspaper said the rear of the brewery showed “a scene of desolation that presents a most awful and terrific appearance, equal to that which fire or earthquake may be supposed to occasion.”

Two, Watchmen at the brewery charged people to view the remains of the destroyed beer vats.

And Three, the Jury at the Coroner’s inquest returned a verdict that the eight had lost their lives “casually, accidentally and by misfortune.”

As the disaster was, in the Inquest’s finding, an Act of God, the brewery giant did not have to pay compensation. It went on to prosper mightily, made a vast fortune for generations of the Meux family. You catch up with me guiding anywhere near St Paul’s buttonhole and ask me about the Temple Bar and London Beer Flood connection. 

The Horse Shoe Brewery itself closed in 1921. Meux moved their production to Wandsworth. The property was demolished in 1922. To be replaced by what we’ve got there today – the Dominion Theatre.

Meux and Co. more or less come down into living memory. They went into liquidation in 1961.

And as for gigantic wooden vats in breweries, they went into liquidation as a result of the disaster. They were phased out across the brewery industry and replaced with lined concrete vessels.

 And on that note, the London Beer Flood tale drains away. 

A Today in London recommendation. I’m walking a fine line here, but maybe a visit to the Griffin Brewery – go on the Fuller’s Brewery Tour in Chiswick in West London. Be interesting to ask them – professionals in the field – about the 1814 mishap. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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